Insights from the Beit Yosef’s question

Rabbi Sungolowsky

Perhaps the most famous question about the holiday of chanukah was posed by the בית יוסף in his commentary on the טור Tur siman 670. The Talmud says in masechet Shabbat 21b that after defeating the Yevanim, the Maccabees found only one intact  jug of olive oil with which to light the menorah in the beit hamikdash. This jug contained a sufficient quantity of oil to light the menorah for just one day. The Talmud says that a nes occurred and this single flask of oil was enough to light the menorah for eight days until a new supply of olive oil could be produced. To commemorate these wonders, the Rabbis decreed that we should light a menorah in our homes for eight days. The Beit Yosef points out that since there was enough oil to last “על פי דרך הטבע” (naturally) for the first day, the fact that the menorah continued to burn until the eighth day only constituted seven ניסים (miracles). The first day’s lighting was not a miracle. This being the case, the Beit Yosef asks why then do we celebrate the miracle of the oil by lighting the menorah for eight days? We should only light for seven days since only seven miracles occurred!  There have been numerous answers given to resolve this difficulty, to the point where an entire sefer (book), named "נר למאה" containing one hundred answers to this particular question, has been published. I would like to focus on four answers which in addition to answering the Bet Yosef’s question, also convey fundamental Torah insights.

                The מאירי Meiri in his commentary on masechet Shabbat says that the reason we light eight candles even though there were only seven miracles is to demonstrate and thank Hashem (God) for the military victory that the maccabees achieved against King Antiyochas and the Yevanim. Despite the fact that the Yevanim had both a greater number of soldiers than the Maccabees, as well as more sophisticated weapons, the Maccabees defeated the Yevanim and drove them out Eretz Yisrael  (the land of Israel).  The question that we may ask on the Meiri’s answer is: why is the appropriate way to commemorate the maccabees’ military victory by lighting a candle? It makes sense to commemorate the miracle of the menorah burning without sufficient oil for the allocated time by lighting candles, but what does lighting a candle have to do with marking a seemingly impossible triumph on the battlefield?  It would seem to make more sense to make a parade or eat a festive meal to celebrate the maccabees’ military victiory. An explanation was suggested by my Rabbi. It is as follows. Many nations go through revolutions whose sole purpose is to free them from the yoke of colonial rule and oppression. In these situations the only goal of the rebels’ victory is achieving political independence ( e.g. the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” has as its punch line the Hebrew words  “להיות עם חפשי בארצינו” which translates to “to be a free people in our land”). However in Torah ideology the purpose of obtaining political freedom is not simply for the sake of realizing nationalistic aspirations for self-determination. Rather, the purpose of having Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael is so that we should be able to keep the Torah and serve Hashem . In order to stress this crucial point we light a candle. The passuk (verse) in Mishley (Proverbs) says “כי נר מצוה ותורה אור” which translates to “for the candle of mitzvah is the light of Torah”. This passuk (verse) shows us that observance of the mitzvoth and study of the Torah is symbolized by the burning light of a candle. Consequently, by lighting an eighth candle on chanukah we are making a statement that the purpose of the military victory achieved by the maccabees was for the goal of removing the Jews from the decrees of the Yevanim (Greeks) that prohibited them from practicing the traditions and mitzvot of Judaism and studying the Torah.

                A second answer to the Beit Yosef’s question is offered by תוס' הראש.  Tosfos HaRosh says that the macabees divided the single jug of oil that they discovered into eight separate portions. Each night one of these portions was put into the menorah and miraculously it lasted for the entire night instead of only one eighth of the night as dictated by natural law. The Meiri says that Tosfos HaRosh’s answer is difficult to understand because there is a rule in the Talmud that says that we are forbidden to engage in conduct that relies on miraculous intervention by Hashem for success- אין סומכין על הנס . Yet according to Tosfos HaRosh’s answer, the maccabees were in fact relying on a miracle each of the eight nights. This is so because the Torah commands that the menorah burn the whole night from darkness until morning. Without putting in the entire quantity of oil from the discovered jug, the maccabees were creating a situation where the menorah could only light one eighth of its prescribed time- unless a miracle transpired. How could the maccabees do this?

                In order to resolve this conundrum we need to look at a story told in the Talmud in masechet Ta’anit 20b. The Talmud there tells of a shaky wall that stood in the city of Naharda on the verge of collapse. The amoraim Rav and Shmuel would never walk directly under this wall out of concern that it could collapse at any time. One particular day these two great talmidei chachamim (scholars) were approaching this wall and Shemuel said to Rav “let us make our usual detour to avoid walking directly under this shaky wall”.  Rav replied “it is not necessary to take that protective measure today as the saintly Rabbi Ada Bar Ahava is amongst us today. Due to his many merits there is no need to fear this shaky wall”. They then proceeded to walk directly underneath it without incurring injury or misfortune.  From this story it would appear that an extremely pious person (like Rabbi Ada Bar Ahava ) is allowed to engage in risky expeditions which rely on miraculous protection from Hashem.   

            Another story that the Talmud relates there (on page 21a) concerns Nachum Ish Gamzu. The Talmud recounts that Nachum Ish Gamzu was lying in a bed blind and paralyzed. Suddenly his house began to teeter and it was clear that it could collapse at any moment. His students wanted to remove him first and then attempt to save the furniture from his house. Nachum Ish Gamzu instructed them to leave him in the house and to first remove the furniture. He explained “it is guaranteed that so long as I am in this house it will not cave in. Therefore there is nothing to fear by leaving me here as you remove the furniture.” The students proceeded to follow the instructions of Nachum Ish Gamzu and began to remove the furniture. When all the furniture had been removed they went to take out Nachum Ish Gamzu.  As Nachum Ish Gamzu cleared the door of the house, it caved in. The students remarked to Nachum Ish Gamzu “Master, given that you (apparently) are a צדיק גמור Tzadik Gamur (totally righteous man) why do you suffer so much physically?” He then went on to explain to them why he suffered so much.  The Maharshah comments on the two aforementioned stories and says that we see from here that the Talmudic rule that “one should not rely on a miracle” is due to the fact that an ordinary person cannot be sure that he has enough merit for Hashem to save him in situations of peril. However someone who is totally righteous does not have this concern and therefore has the right to engage in what would normally be considered risky behavior (obviously if it’s for a legitimate purpose). Indeed it would seem that the students of Nachum Ish Gamzu were referring to this point. Only after they saw that Nachum Ish Gamzu was willing to use his life as a guarantee that the house would not collapse did they realize that Nachum Ish Gamzu was a Tzadik Gamur.  

                With the information gleaned from these two stories in Ta’anit we can now defend Tosfos HaRosh’s answer to the Beit Yosef’s question which says that the maccabees divided the single jug of oil into eight separate parts. As we saw, the Meiri rejected this answer because he said that the maccabees would not have been allowed to rely on a miracle that one eighth of the requisite amount of oil would be sufficient for an entire night’s lighting. However we can now suggest that the maccabees realized, based on the astounding miracles that Hashem had preformed for them in defeating the Yevanim that in fact they had the status of Tzadik Gamur (totally righteous men).  They, like Nachum Ish Gamzu, felt confident that Hashem would make a miracle for them and that the one eighth of oil would suffice to burn each night for the entire night until a fresh supply of olive oil could be obtained for the menorah.

    On the other hand, one could draw a distinction between the aforementioned cases of the Talmud and the situation that faced the maccabees on chanukah. In the situation that confronted the amoraim in the Ta’anit it was not absolutely necessary for an outright miracle to occur in order for the rabbis to escape danger. For example, in the city of Nahardah, the shaky wall existed for many years without falling. Therefore when Rav and Shmuel took the chance of walking under that wall it did not necessarily require a change of nature for them to survive. The same way that the wall had not collapsed until that point, the wall could still remain intact while Rav and Shmuel passed under it. Similarly the fact that Nahum Is Gamzu’s house did not fall until after he was taken out, does not necessarily entail divine intervention. By contrast when the maccabees divided the single jug of oil into eight separate portions they were perforce relying on Hashem to miraculously make one eighth of the amount of oil burn eight times longer than it possibly could have based on the laws of nature. Just because a tzadik gamur has the right to take a chance where -on the one hand- he might incur harm, but on the other hand he might get away without injury even without a miracle, it does not necessarily follow that a tzadik gamur can put himself in a situation where the only means of success is for Hashem to change nature.

                Perhaps we can suggest a different approach to explain how in fact the maccabees relied on an outright miracle by dividing the jug into eight parts. The Talmud in Berachot page 20a records dialogue between Rav Papa and Abaye. Rav Papa asked Abaye “why is it that the earlier generations merited miracles occurring for them whereas our generation does not merit miracles? In terms of Torah study we are just as studious”. Abaye responded “The earlier generations were Moser Nefesh (go above and beyond the call of duty) for Kiddush Hashem (to sanctify Hashem’s name) whereas our generation does not”.  This Talmudic dictum teaches us that those who are willing to put themselves out more than they are required to do for the sake of Kiddush Hashem -merit miracles. With this in mind we can understand how the maccabbees were confident that Hashem would make a miracle for them with the lighting of the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash. The maccabees had the bravery to initiate a revolt against the Yevanim even though any military strategist would have said that their efforts were futile and doomed to failure. Nevertheless they were undeterred and risked their lives to fight the Yevanim for the sole purpose of Kiddush Hashem .This was a quintessential example of what the Talmud in Berachot is discussing, i.e. people who were Moser Nefesh for the sake of Kiddush Hashem.

                Seemingly another difficulty may be raised with Tosfos HaRosh’s answer to the Beit Yosef’s question that says that the maccabees divided the oil into eight separate parts. As we have seen, this strategy was predicated on the maccabee’s belief that they were Tzadikim Gemurim who were allowed to rely on miracles. Given this assumption on their part, why did the maccabees need to divide the oil into eight parts and light one eighth each night. Once they were anyway relying on a miracle, they could’ve just lit the wick of the menorah without putting in any oil at all and count on Hashem (God) to  miraculously make the menorah burn even without any oil!!

In order to explain this, it is helpful to look at the words of the Ramban in his commentary on the story of Noah and the ark. The Ramban there points out that it is physically impossible for the ark to have housed two representatives of all the animals and insects that exist in the world. The dimensions of the   תיבה Teiva (ark), being what they were, simply did not have sufficient space to do this. The Ramban says that even ten times the dimensions of the Teiva would not have been enough to store so many animals. It is therefore obvious that Hashem must have made a miracle to enable the Teiva , despite its limited dimensions, to contain so many creatures. This being the case, the Ramban asks --toward what end did Hashem trouble noach to make a large sized teiva ? Hashem could have simply told Noach to build a rowboat and then made a miracle that the rowboat should hold the multitude of animals. From the fact that Hashem did not do that, says the Ramban, we see that Hashem does not like to make pure miracles. Hashem wants man to put in as much effort-hishtadlus- as he reasonably can and only then does Hashem intervene with a miracle. Using this principle we can explain the thinking of the maccabees in dividing the single jug that they found into eight portions of oil. The macabbess felt that only after they had made their maximum effort to enable the Menorah to burn each night --would Hashem intervene with a miracle and enable one eighth of oil to burn for a complete night.

                A third answer that is given to the Beit Yosef’s question is said in the name of theחידושי ה"רים  Chidushei Harim. He answers the Beit Yosef’s question by asking a different question. Why was it necessary for there to be any miracle in order for one jug of oil to burn for eight days? Why couldn’t the maccabees simply have shaved the thickness of the wicks used for the Menorah to one eighth of their normal thickness? By employing this simple solution the need for a miracle would have been obviated. The Chidushei Harim answers that we must in fact assume that the maccabees did thin out the wicks of the Menorah to one eighth of their normal size. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, no miracle was in fact necessary. However Hashem did not want the Menorah’s flame to burn with an unsightly thin flame. Therefore Hashem intervened miraculously and made the flame each night the same robust size that it would have been had the wicks not been trimmed down. By making this miracle Hashem enabled the Menorah to have its usual beautiful flame without interruption. According to this theory, the Beit Yosef’s question is now answered. Although there was enough oil for the first night’s lighting without any divine intervention, a miracle nevertheless occurred all eight nights in respect to the fact that the flame was miraculously larger each of the eight nights then it should have been according to the laws of physics.

                Based on the answer of the Chidushei Harim we can also resolve another classical difficulty about our rabbinic mitzvah of lighting the menorah on chanukah. The Talmud tells us that to fulfill the basic requirement of lighting the Menorah it is sufficient for one candle to be lit on behalf of the entire household. However the Talmud adds that if a person wants to perform this mitzvah in the best possible manner, referred to as Mehadrin min Hamehadrin, then each member of the household lights his or her own menorah every night and also continues to add an additional candle each of the succeeding eight nights. The commentators ask why it is that specifically by the rabbinic mitzvah of lighting the menorah that we go all out and do Mehadrin Min Hamehadrin? We do not find such a concept by any other Mitzvah, even miztvot that areדאורייתא  (biblically prescribed). However according to the Chidushei Harim this mystery is now solved. Since, according to the Chidushei Harim, the whole miracle of the Menorah pertained to the matter of Hiddur  הידור (beauty) (i.e. making the flames of the Menorah in the beit hamikdash as aesthetically nice as they could be), the Rabbis ordained that we should reciprocate what Hashem did  and do our utmost  to perform this mitzvah of lighting the Menorah with maximum Hiddur.

                A fourth answer to the Beit Yosef’s question states that although it is correct that only seven miracles were necessary since the maccabees only had enough oil to last one night, nevertheless we light an eighth candle to show our appreciation for the natural phenomenon that oil burns at all! The fact that nature exists and functions is only due to of Hashem ‘s constant involvement in the world. However, the problem with this answer is that why specifically on chanukah would the rabbis choose to thank Hashem for the fact that the laws of nature work?? Seemingly there is no more reason to thank Hashem for this kindness on chanukah anymore than on any other occasion.

                 I heard the following explanation from my Jewish philosophy teacher. The whole philosophy of the Yevanim was that tevaטבע  (nature) was an end in and of itself. The Yevanim believed that there was no divine force involved in making nature operate. They viewed nature as a non-spiritual force which should be exploited by man for his physical pleasure. They constructed gymnasiums to enable man to perfect his body and enjoy the pleasures of nature to the fullest. Judaism’s Hashkafa (philosophy) is diametrically opposed to this outlook. We believe that Hashem created and is constantly manipulating nature. We further believe that nature is to be used by man to perfect his closeness to God. It is therefore appropriate that the holiday of chanuka was selected by the rabbis to demonstrate, by  the lighting of the extra candle that the fact that nature functions, e.g. the fact that oil burns, only is so because Hashem  wills it.

    In summary, we have analyzed four of the many answers offered to resolve the Beit Yosef’s classic question. We have seen that these particular answers not only remove the question, but also provide important insights into Torah Hashkafa.


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